What is a leopon? A leopon is a cross between a male leopard and a lioness. These hybrids have been bred on a number of occasions in zoos. There are records of them being in zoos in Italy and Japan. In Japan they have been exhibited at the Hanshin Park Zoo and the Koshien Zoo.
In addition being in zoos in Japan they have been bred in zoos in India and Germany. A leopon was apparently exhibited in Regent’s Park zoo, London which was more like a leopard than a lion. There is a report of this hybridization occurring naturally in the wild when a lioness was expelled from a pride. She formed an alliance with a male leopard. The leopard mated with her when she was in heat.
The best-known leopon breeding program was at Koshien Hanshin Park in Nishinomiya City, Japan. A lioness whose name was Sonoko mated with a leopard, Kaneo. The leopon hybrid was popular with the public but the breeding program was criticized by other zoos and by animal welfare advocates.
A lot of preparation went into the mating between these two cat species including carefully choosing their food with added hormones. The size difference in these cats presented a barrier and almost caused the program to be abandoned but three matings were witnessed in March and June 1959. The lioness became pregnant in September and the cubs were born after 97 days gestation which was several days earlier than expected.
The leopon is larger than the leopard and takes after the lion in terms of size (almost as large as the lioness mother). They have shorter leopard-like legs and “stout lion-like bodies”. They like water which is more a leopard characteristic and they also climb like leopards. The leopard is a better climber than the lion. The adult male leopon has a sparse mane about 20 cm in length. The female leopon’s personality lies between the solitary nature of the leopard and the social nature of the lioness (they live in prides). The Japanese leopons were sterile. The last one died in 1985.
They were stuffed and displayed at the zoo but I believe it has since closed. Sarah Hartwell says that two stuffed leopons are currently at the National Science Museum in Tokyo for scientific research. Others are displayed in Nishinomiya City (located in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan, between the cities of Amagasaki and Ashiya).